Van Hollen optimistic, Schumer downright buoyant on Democrats’ prospects for 2008

The chairmen of the House and Senate Democratic campaign committees sounded differing notes of optimism on Wednesday, just more than a year away from what they say will be a second straight election on the offensive.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing, Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP MORE (D-N.Y.) was effusive, saying the 2008 election could be “a seminal election” on par with only a few in the history of the country. The two-cycle chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the results could “change the tectonic plates of politics.”

Schumer said he expects to hold all 12 seats that Senate Democrats have to defend in 2008 and to pick up a good share of the 22 that Republicans are trying to hold, expanding on his party’s slim 51-49 majority in that chamber.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), with a tougher map in front of him as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), struck a more measured tone. But he insisted that his committee will play offense on a wide field and that the committee already has strong challengers in 40 races.

In contrast to Schumer, Van Hollen tempered expectations to some extent, saying the cycle after a “wave” election is historically a difficult one and that the DCCC has to “beat history” after gaining 30 seats in 2006.

“I think the big story on the House side this election is that we’re not just trying to consolidate our gains,” he said. “We are very much on offense.”

Schumer and Van Hollen repeatedly insisted that the Democratic Party is still the party of change and said the voters still believe in it to effect that change, despite an inability so far to end the war in Iraq and lift Congress’s very low approval ratings.

Republicans said the Democrats have forfeited the change mantle in less than a year in power. They pointed to a number of so-called “failures” and “broken promises,” including not clearing any appropriations bills thus far and failing to live up to their pledges on ethics reform.

“One year ago, voters placed their expectations on the shoulders of congressional Democrats, and they’ve failed to deliver,” said a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Jessica Boulanger. “Democrats’ inability to get anything accomplished, coupled with their growing list of broken campaign promises, has left the American people exasperated with this majority.”

Schumer and Van Hollen insisted that Democrats are trying to make change and are succeeding on some counts, while President Bush and Republicans have thwarted them on others, including embryonic stem cell research and an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

They also addressed another line of attack from Republicans: that the party’s presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would hurt candidates in more conservative areas of the country. House Democrats in particular hold a number of seats in districts that have gone convincingly for Republicans in presidential contests.

“Whoever is the Democratic nominee, our candidates around the country will be letting people know where they agree with the positions articulated by the nominee and where they disagree,” Van Hollen said. “We have lots of people who will take different positions on certain issues.”

Schumer, who has endorsed Clinton, noted that she won over rural upstate New York voters who initially were opposed to her during her Senate campaigns. He said he expected independents and even Republicans to come around to her candidacy.

Schumer suggested that President Bush would have more of an impact on the race, despite his term expiring in January 2009. He said Democrats’ strategy of tying Republicans to Bush can continue to work.

Van Hollen assured, “George Bush and his legacy will be on the ballot in 2008.”

Schumer’s contention about a wholesale shift beneath the surface of the political landscape represents an ambitious forecast, even for somebody in as rosy a situation as he appears to be.

Senate Democrats have a growing field of opportunities due to GOP retirements and have built a significant edge in cash and candidates in the first year of the 2008 cycle. Some have even begun talking about a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

Schumer went so far as to compare the election to the 1932 and 1980 contests. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the Democrats out of the minority, and they wound up holding control of Congress for decades. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election helped Republicans gain 12 Senate seats and dozens of House seats.

“We’re about at the tail end of the Ronald Reagan era, where his ideas — fresh and, even as a Democrat, I’d say, many of them needed at the time — have just lost steam, lost resonance,” Schumer said.

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rebecca Fisher, said Schumer is missing the point.

“What Democrats fail to mention is that we have one year to go for voters to see their massive tax increases to pay for their obscene spending habits — something that will ultimately benefit Republicans next November,” Fisher said.